Books drawn on in this essay include:
The Plot Against Samuel Pepys, by James and Ben Long, Faber and Faber, 322 pp, £17.99, ISBN: 978-0571227136
The Diaries of Samuel Pepys – a Selection, Robert Latham (ed), Penguin, 1,152 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0141439938
The Glorious Revolution: 1688 – Britain’s Fight for Liberty, by Edward Vallance, Abacus, 384 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0349117331
Samuel Pepys was, near enough, London’s Leopold Bloom – intelligent, curious, diligent and decent, with an abiding interest in music, food, women and the life of the city and people around him. Both individuals, the historical and the fictional, were bourgeois gentlemen who provide what are among the most honest records of human, and in particular male, thinking available. They told the truth about themselves, a simple enough matter, but also a rare phenomenon and one which separates them from the bulk of memoir writers who are always, to some degree, engaged in personal propaganda. There are differences of course; Joyce shone his light on the involuntary sequences of Bloom’s thinking, whereas Pepys simply wrote down what he was aware of thinking about and what was happening in the world around him. The result in both cases was a compelling and brilliant literary work.
Samuel Pepys, most unusually for his time, believed that his everyday doings would interest posterity, and this inspired him in January 1660 to embark upon what is one of the most fascinating diaries of all time. He went to great pains to ensure his journal would survive, thinking, correctly as it turned out, that it would be read at some time in the future. His belief that his writings would not be read during his lifetime no doubt emboldened him and in part explains the remarkable frankness with which he presents himself: whether arguing with his wife, singing in his garden or making advances (successful) towards Diana, the daughter of his neighbour Mrs Crisp. He was, however, fully aware of the danger inherent in his frankness and he ensured that he would not be compromised if some member of his household – in particular his wife – happened upon the journal. The entries were written, almost entirely, in an obscure form of shorthand understood by only a tiny percentage of the population.
In his will Pepys bequeathed his library to Magdalene College Cambridge, and among his three thousand books he placed the six leatherbound volumes of his diary. In a message to posterity, elsewhere on his shelves, he placed a guide to the form of shorthand he had used when writing them. The diaries rested in Cambridge until they were translated and published in the nineteenth century. However, some passages, including those with a sexual content, did not conform to Victorian publishing standards and as a result about one fifth of the entries were omitted.
Given the extraordinary character of Pepys’s journal it is surprising that it is not more central to English culture and self-understanding. After all, Bloom, once a confirmed outsider, is ever present in contemporary Ireland’s attempts to understand itself. One of Pepys’s nineteenth century admirers, Robert Louis Stevenson, described the diarist as among the greatest men in the annals of mankind, adding: “he has yet placed himself before the public eye with such a fullness and such an intimacy of detail as might be envied by a genius like Montaigne”. Indeed, there is enough material in the diaries to keep the English costume drama sector busy for many years, yet, notwithstanding this and their unique character, they have failed to make a serious impact on the popular mind in England.
Pepys, once a consummate insider, became something of an outsider. This journey, from the centre to the periphery, has to do with the fact that the diaries were not considered seriously until the late nineteenth century. By that time a complex of myths concerning the emergence of modern England – the anachronistic pieties of Whig history, which became what might be termed The English Story – were deeply entrenched. According to the general consensus, the later Stuarts, whom Pepys loyally served, were a bad lot, while the roundhead victors in the civil war were great patriots. Stevenson dealt with the problem by seeing Pepys as a good man in bad times, saying that he lived in a “corrupt and idle period”. In this Stevenson, a Scot, was simply reflecting the general view of the English and their seventeenth century history. It does seem odd that a period of bloodletting and fanaticism should be looked on more favourably than one of peace and prosperity. Other English commentators, attached to the consensus viewpoint, have read Pepys’s bourgeois sensibility as meaning that he was at heart really a puritan; others again have tried to present him as a Whig trapped in the royalist camp. For the most part, however, these mental gymnastics do not convince, and the unavoidable fact that the great diarist was a supporter of the Stuarts and a Jabobite has led to his relative marginalisation.
The myths comprising The English Story are, at best, a mixture of half-truths, distortions and silences. Despite 1066 And All That and more serious revisionist exercises, they are still at the heart of English self-understanding. The core narrative of the Whig story sees events, from the Magna Carta to the Reformation to Cromwell and the Glorious Revolution, as a rational, perhaps even preordained, assertion of the plain and decent English people against arbitrary power, whether royal or Romanist, and in support of an almost sacred journey towards the ultimate and universal good that is multi-party parliamentary government.
In the twentieth century the continued currency of these myths was confirmed from both left and right by major historians including GM Trevelyan, AJP Taylor and Christopher Hill. On the tercentenary of the 1688 Glorious Revolution both Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock confirmed their commitment to the central teleological dogmas of Whig history. Today, the prevailing influence of The English Story can be seen in such pursuits as the Windsor-baiting and Euroscepticism of the tabloid press and, of course, in continuing military attempts to re-engineer the political structures of remote cultures.
The exceptional Englishman Samuel Pepys lived very contentedly following the restoration of the crown to Charles II, a time which, from the perspective of Whig history, was seriously off message. It was a period which saw Cromwell’s remains exhumed and hanged from a gallows at Tyburn and his head displayed, for many years, on a pole outside Westminster Abbey. It was also a time of enormous cultural energy and economic growth. Theatres were reopened, women permitted to act on stage, the navy reorganised, the Dutch seen off and the island of Manhattan gained.
Yet the Restoration does not have an honourable role in The English Story; its termination is known as The Glorious Revolution and interpreted as the foundation of English Liberty. One of the most striking inaccuracies maintained in relation to 1688 is that it involved a non–violent transfer of royal authority. Some Tory commentators, wishing to align themselves with the realities of the eighteenth century, have even argued that properly understood James’s departure and William’s accession were events within the rules of hereditary succession. The truth is that James put up quite a fight against the invading Dutch and their local allies, a fight which involved large-scale war and destruction in Ireland and extensive bloodletting in Scotland.
Pepys was tolerant of, indeed fascinated by, the world in all its diversity. He was raised in a puritan household but quickly outgrew its limitations and stands as one of the finest representatives of an England which might have maintained a position at the centre of European culture. Late seventeenth century London, however, was once again becoming a place hostile to Europe, and Pepys – the diligent and loyal administrator – was obliged to turn from his professional concerns, his books and growing engagement with scientific enquiry to avoid being crushed by bigotry and Whig scheming. Anti-Catholicism was the language of Pepys’s enemies; it was the language through which England modernised; it didn’t have to be, but it was, and it was a foreign language to Samuel Pepys. For England, Pepys is the – unacknowledged – embodiment of a road not taken.
Sam Pepys was a man of feeling who happened to be highly organised, intelligent and drawn to order. Throughout his life, he found himself required to use his formidable intellect to minimise the political and personal difficulties caused by his emotional and aesthetic impulses. He was an Anglican who appreciated and responded to the Catholic religious aesthetic, a weakness which nearly cost him his head. But when the calculating Lord Shaftesbury, founder of the Whigs, attempted to destroy him, he could not best the remarkable Londoner. The labyrinthine details of the plot to destroy Pepys and the ultimate confounding of his enemies are told in James and Ben Long’s excellent The Plot Against Pepys.
There were, as we learn with fascination from the diaries, comparable tensions in his private life, in that his desire for regularity and doing things his way was not fully shared by his wife, with whom he had fallen passionately in love and married when she was fifteen years of age and seven years his junior. The struggle between Elizabeth and Samuel, which is one of the great interests of the diary, continued throughout his married life; unlike the contest with the Whigs, it had no clear winner.
Over the centuries in England, as elsewhere, marriage was the main means of securing property and power. It was, however, also an unscientific business and a well-worn route to losing wealth and status. Downward social mobility was, however, a crucial element in the renewal of the elite. Bad marriages provided a pool from which talent could be drawn to support the established order. Samuel Pepys was a beneficiary of this restricted system of social mobility. His unassertive father was a modestly comfortable tailor who married an enthusiastic puritan and former domestic servant, wholly lacking in social connections which might be useful to her children. Luckily, the Pepys side did have some rich relations who were to be the means of Samuel’s upward movement.
His patron and kinsman Edward Montagu, later Lord Sandwich, was a navy officer, and at sea for extensive periods in the service of Cromwell’s expanded and successful navy. He was in need of a factotum on dry land and employed his relation Samuel, who had already shown some ability, to look after his affairs and report to him on the general situation during his absences. Some of Pepys’s observations, made in letters to Montagu, are highly insightful, including his noting of the increasingly regal tone of Cromwell’s court, a development which contributed to the slow change in sentiment that was in time to facilitate the restoration. Other observations offer fascinating, if disturbing, micro-pictures of life in the great puritan’s entourage, such as the occasion he reported seeing Cromwell hold his sides with laughter as some of his gentlemen paraded grotesquely before him dressed in captured popish vestments.
As a clerk Pepys married; like his father, and contrary to the eternal wisdom of elders, he did not use the institution to edge his way up the social ladder. His was a love marriage. The achingly beautiful Elizabeth was from a family of impoverished French refugee Protestants. Pepys loved and desired her in equal measure and so began their married life in 1655 on his very small income. Later when they fought he would call her “beggar” in reference to her not having brought a dowry. “Pricklouse”, she would respond, in reference to his father’s lowly trade. From the practical point of view Elizabeth was a bad match bringing a double disadvantage. She had no money but coming from a family with aristocratic pretensions she was, unlike his mother, untrained in the performance of housework. In the early days of their marriage she made valiant but ineffectual efforts to wash his shirts which, initially, he appears to have responded to philosophically. As she was little more than a child when they met perhaps he ought not to have expected much in the way of housekeeping expertise and, of course, as the union was a love match, domestic considerations were not prominent in Pepys’s concerns during the courtship phase.
As they settled into married life, Sam found himself torn between frustration with her domestic shortcomings and desire for her physically. They rowed frequently over domestic matters, with the overbearing Pepys usually ending up feeling guilty for having upset his wife and seeking reconciliation. Things improved as he became wealthier and they could afford more servants. The power in the marriage, however, resided predominantly with the husband, and Elizabeth at times appears exceptionally isolated and vulnerable; she was fortunate that Pepys was basically decent and loving. We learn a lot about Elizabeth from the diary and it is pleasing to discover that she was far from a pushover, and at times played her limited hand with brilliance.
As is sometimes the case in the married state, many of their disagreements were about money. In July 1664 Pepys wrote:
I walked homeward still doing business by the way, and at home I find my wife this day of her own accord to have lain out 25s upon a pair of pendances for her eares which did vex me and brought me and her to very high, and very foul words from her to me, such as trouble me to think she should have in her mouth …
Pepys forced her to send Besse, her maid, to return the earrings but, as was his wont, then calmed down and ran after her to tell her to return the items to Elizabeth.
…but the words I could not get out of my mind, and so went to bed at night discontented; and she came to me but all would not make me friends, but sleep and rise in the morning angry.
Elizabeth found numerous ways to assert herself, proving again and again to her husband that their marriage would not be administered as easily as his office. His experience in this respect may lie behind the somewhat sour note to the entry for Christmas Day 1665: “To church in the morning, and there saw a wedding in the Church, which I have not seen many a day, and the young people so merry one with another, and strange, to see what delight we married have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition, every man and wife gazing and smiling at them.”
Pepys was not mean, but he was practical and liked to be in charge. Even when he’d managed to gather a few hundred pounds, he knew it wasn’t a fortune and that, if his career took a downturn, he would be far from secure. He therefore wanted to preserve and build his fortune while living in a manner that befitted their improving status. While he explained his thinking on many occasions, Elizabeth was unmoved by abstract considerations regarding money. As mistress of the house she was expected to keep accounts, which it was necessary to balance every month. She achieved this by making bogus entries in her ledger; a practice which when discovered dismayed her husband. It seems, however, there was method in her madness and that she sometimes used the bogus entries to get her hands on funds for personal purposes.
Coming home tonight, I did go to examine my wife’s house accounts, and finding things that seemed somewhat doubtful, I was angry, though she did make it pretty plain, but confessed that when she doth misse a sum, she doth add something or other to make it. And upon my being very angry, she doth protest she will here lay up something for herself to buy a necklace with – which madded me and doth still trouble me, for I fear she will forget by degrees the way of living cheap and under a sense of want.
The fact that Pepys and Elizabeth were fundamentally different types ensured both mutual fascination and plenty of disagreement. The diary entry for June 4th, 1667 catches the tone of their married life:
To the office all the afternoon, where I despatched much business to my great content; and then home in the evening, and there to sing and pipe with my wife; and that being done, she fell all of a sudden to discourse about her clothes and my humours in not suffering her to wear them as she pleases, and grew to high words between us. But I fell to read a book (Boyle’s Hydrostatickes) aloud in my chamber and let her talk till she was tired, and vexed that I would not hear her; and so became friends and to bed together …
Elizabeth had no doubt a great deal to endure from her humane but bossy husband, and indeed, on one occasion he actually records striking his wife. The entry for December 19th, 1664 reads:
Going to bed betimes last night, we waked betimes. And from our people’s being forced to take the key to go out to light a candle, was very angry and begun to find fault with my wife for not commanding her servants as she ought. Thereupon, she giving me some cross answer, I did strike her over her left eye such a blow, as the poor wretch did cry out and was in great pain; but yet her spirit was such as to endeavour to bite and scratch me. But I cogging with her, made her leave crying, and sent for butter and parsley, and friends presently with one another; and I up, vexed at my heart to think what I had done, for she was forced to lay a poultice or something to her eye all day, and is black – and the people of the house observed it.
Samuel Pepys received a classical education at Cambridge, which he valued highly. However, he was aware that scientific knowledge was essential to an understanding of naval matters and, as a rising star at the Navy Board, was determined to master its business. He frequently rose at 4 am to study his multiplication tables and a week after his exchange with Elizabeth was still making his way through Boyle, “which is a most excellent book as ever I read; and I will take much pains to understand him through if I can …” He usually had a book about him and frequently read as he walked the quiet grassy paths along the Thames on his way to Deptford shipyards on official business.
Pepys was both a practical man and a man of letters. All aspects of European civilisation interested him. He was a discriminating collector of books and the first custom-made glass-fronted bookcases constructed in England were made for him. Remarkably, his interests were not confined to high culture: he also assembled a major collection of street ballads. This interest in popular culture, which must have been quite extraordinary at the time, reflects the originality and creativity of his thinking, which is also seen in the exceptional quality of his journal.
While Elizabeth helped him catalogue his library, she was uneducated and did not provide the type of conversation he sometimes desired. Her preference was for French romances, whose tortuous plots she would recount to her husband. It is not difficult to imagine his imperfect attempts to feign interest. The redeeming thing about Pepys was that, whereas he often mistreated Elizabeth and was frequently irritated by her, he never lost his feelings for her. He took on the task of her education with his customary enthusiasm and instructed her in astronomy, geography and arithmetic.
This evening after I came home, I begun to enter my wife in arithmetique, in order to her studying the globes, and she takes it very well – and I hope with great pleasure I shall bring her to understand many fine things.
Elizabeth also took up drawing, painting, singing and dancing at various times to ease the loneliness and boredom she suffered when her husband was busy about the town. Pepys accepted or encouraged these undertakings but was more positively disposed towards serious pursuits, such as the translation of books from French into English. On one occasion he was leafing through some French texts at a booksellers and picked one he thought would suit: “ … homeward by coach and stopped at Martin’s my bookseller, where I saw the French book which I did think to have for my wife to translate, called L’École des Filles.” Perhaps, as one commentator has speculated, he thought it an improving text which might benefit Elizabeth not only through the discipline of translation but also through its edifying content. On looking a little further, however, he discovered its famous erotic subject matter and concluded: “it is the most bawdy, lewd book that I ever saw, rather worse than Putanta Errante – so that I was ashamed of reading in it; and so away home.”
That, however, was not the end of the matter and a week later he was back to get a copy for himself. After an extended period of shuffling about he made the purchase “in plain binding (avoiding the buying of it better bound) because I resolve, as soon as I have read it, to burn it, that it may not stand in the list of books, nor among them, to disgrace them if it should be found”. He appears to have devoted most of the next day, which was Sunday, to reading the text. Finishing the book he concluded, in a well-worn vein of male hypocrisy, it “is a mighty lewd book, but not yet amiss for a sober man once to read over to inform himself in the villainy of the world”.
Pepys’s interest in sexual matters was not solely literary; he had numerous sexual adventures and resorted to a mixture of Latin and French when describing the details. He was undoubtedly hot-blooded, and as he became more prosperous more opportunities for indulgence arose. A logical course might have been to employ some of the city’s many prostitutes; Pepys was conscious of their presence, describing one professional who tempted him as “one of the prettiest women I ever saw”. His fear, however, was that she was not “wholesome” and that he would contract a disease which would end his life in great pain after a miserable and extended period of mercury treatment. His targets were, therefore, married women and shop girls, with whom he was regularly successful.
His companions seem to have enjoyed his company and conversation, and were willing to grant sexual favours in exchange for small gifts, a little money and a pleasant afternoon drinking in a tavern. For most of the market girls, and indeed the married women, money was tight and being with a prosperous man willing to spend was a rare treat. It seems also that the married women were often bored and hostile or ambivalent towards their husbands and that this inclined them towards a dalliance with Pepys. Mrs Lane was one of his many amorous companions “ … she being the strangest woman in talk, of love to her husband sometimes, and sometimes again she doth not care for him – and yet willing enough to allow me a liberty of doing what I would with her. So spending 5 or 6s upon her, I could do what I would.”
He sometimes became sexually restless when Elizabeth was away, and on one occasion had yearnings for Jane Birch, a long-established domestic in his house, but these he resisted “for fear she should prove honest and refuse and then tell my wife”. Over the years he had contacts with many married women: Mrs Martin and her sister Doll Lane, Mrs Burroughs, Mrs Daniel and Mrs Knepp among others. Mrs Knepp was an actress in the King’s company, a colleague of the famous Nell Gwyn, one of the king’s few non-Catholic mistresses. Nell famously calmed an anti-Catholic London mob bent on overturning her carriage under the misapprehension that she was one of Charles’s French mistresses with the declaration: “Forbear good people, ’tis I, Nell Gwyn, the Protestant whore.”
Mrs Knepp was married to a horse dealer, whom she appears to have thoroughly disliked. Pepys, on the other hand, she looked upon favourably. During a coach trip in London she sat on his knee, the diarist fondling her breasts for the duration of the journey. Her breasts, it seems, had caught his imagination and on another occasion, when he gave a dinner for her in his house, she became unwell and was obliged to rest in one of the bedrooms upstairs, where she was joined by her host, who sang to her as he caressed her “magnificent” bosom. Elizabeth was often suspicious, and probably aware of his activities with various women. While she did not like her husband spending time with Mrs Knepp, she does not appear to have wondered where he was on the evening he eased the actress’s discomfort in the bedroom, perhaps because she was too busy enjoying the company of Mr Pembleton, her dancing master, who also attended the dinner.
Pepys agreed to her having dancing lessons when she complained of loneliness but soon regretted the decision to allow a man visit his wife in private, at home, perhaps several times a day and while he was absent from the house. Initially, he took an interest in dancing himself and was taught a dance which involved moving about quickly on tiptoe interspersed with little jumps. He soon became fiercely jealous and convinced that something was going on. It is unclear whether Elizabeth and Pembleton were involved but certainly Elizabeth enjoyed making Samuel jealous and humiliating him. On one occasion, following a visit from the dancing master, Pepys went to great lengths to determine whether or not Elizabeth was wearing undergarments. On another occasion when Pembleton visited and Pepys learned that Elizabeth had sent all the servants out, he sneaked back into the house to check whether any of the beds were disturbed. None of them was. While it seems unlikely that the frequently neglected Elizabeth remained entirely faithful to Pepys, the diary leaves the impression that her primary desire was for the attentions of her husband. She once revealed to Pepys that his patron, Lord Sandwich, had requested her to become his mistress. She declared that she was tempted by the offer but that she declined out of faithfulness to her husband. Neither of them seemed surprised by the offer nor by Elizabeth’s having seriously considered it.
There was of course a clear rationale in a predatory male approaching a subordinate’s wife. In the first place the subordinate’s movements would be known, thus allowing for safe visits to his wife. Secondly, there was the issue of dependence, and the converse one of possible economic betterment, both of which would increase the likelihood of a favourable response. Pepys himself became involved with Mrs Bagwell, a subordinate’s wife, in a relationship which has roused many voices to criticise the diarist. The assumption, by some, is that Pepys and the husband connived to force the virtuous wife into having relations with the boss in order to secure the husband’s promotion. The diary entries, however, allow for an alternative and somewhat more nuanced reading.
The very attractive Mrs Bagwell was living with her ship’s carpenter husband at the Deptford shipyard in a situation of great domestic bliss when Pepys came on the scene. Initially, Pepys was struck by how happy they were, how pretty was Mrs Bagwell and how pleasantly they lived. The Bagwells wished for Mr Bagwell to be promoted, something which would benefit them both for the rest of their lives and this seemed possible as Mr Pepys seemed to like them, particularly Mrs Bagwell. Mrs Bagwell began turning up at Pepys’s office on various pretexts. He was always pleased to see her and began to take small liberties, such as stroking her beneath the chin. This phase was, of course, followed by a ruthless campaign for a full sexual engagement, which may have been no part of the Bagwells’ original idea. In time, all parties collaborated in the squalid arrangement, with Mrs Bagwell’s husband, who did indeed receive a promotion, absenting himself when Pepys came visiting.
There are indications that Mrs Bagwell was not overjoyed with the way things turned out and it can hardly have improved the marriage. Then, after a period, there is evidence of a change in her attitude, which might well reflect the collapse of that ordered domestic harmony which had at first so impressed Pepys. Liaisons were no longer confined to Deptford as Mrs Bagwell began to search Pepys out long after the original reason for their involvement, her husband’s promotion, had been secured. During the Plague year Mrs Bagwell came seeking Pepys’s company and continued to turn up at his office. One, slightly mystifying, late entry in the diary has Pepys drinking in a tavern with Mrs Bagwell and her mother. One suspects that in this case Pepys’s pleasure was not cost-free and that the Bagwells’ marriage was undermined.
Unequal power was also a factor in an involvement which came close to costing Pepys his marriage and perhaps much more. A young girl, Deborah Willet, from a good family in Bristol, found herself orphaned, a frequent factor in downward social mobility and reduced expectations. She became Elizabeth’s companion – another move to assuage Mrs Pepys’s loneliness – and quickly grew to be much liked by all the family. One of her duties was to help prepare Pepys for bed, a standard activity for a family member, which involved combing his hair and suchlike. Pepys enjoyed these sessions and records “I do so love to have Deb fiddling about me”. Of course this innocent phase did not last very long, with the diarist first kissing her before moving on to take greater liberties. The risk of discovery in such a situation was, of course, great and, sure enough, Elizabeth walked in on them one evening to find them sexually engaged.
This was not an offence she was inclined to take philosophically. She flew into a furious rage and threatened her husband she would declare that she was a Catholic. This, at the time of the imaginary “Popish Plot”, was the equivalent of reaching for the nuclear button; it would have destroyed him. Pepys did everything he could to calm her down, agreeing to Deb’s being turned out of the house and later to writing to her saying he did not like her and that she was a whore. (A friend ensured that page of the letter was removed.) Elizabeth imposed sanctions on Pepys, refusing to let him out of the house unless he was chaperoned. He began to worry that he was going to spend his life as her slave. As part of her protest Elizabeth ceased all washing of herself, and on one occasion in the middle of the night woke him brandishing red hot coal irons. Her extreme reaction is perhaps explained by her recognition that Pepys really had a passion for Deb, which he did, and that this passion was similar to the one he had had for her when they first met. Indeed all this time Pepys was planning to re-establish contact when the opportunity arose.
Deb herself is an interesting character and when Pepys discovered where she was in London she agreed to meet him, but, despite the money he gave her, she quickly decided that the relationship was a bad idea and broke off contact. Once when Samuel and Elizabeth were out walking, Deb and Pepys caught sight of each other. Elizabeth did not see Deb who, realising she was safe from Sam’s attentions, provoked him with a large smile and a wink.
Throughout the diary, Pepys is completely honest about his desire to be well thought of and frankly reveals the little hypocrisies unavoidable in the pursuit of that objective. On April 12th, 1667 he recorded:
Up; and when ready, I to my office to do a little business; and coming homeward again, saw my door and hatch open, left so by Luce our cookmaid; which so vexed me, that I did give her a kick in our entry and offered a blow at her, and was seen doing so by Sir W. Penn’s footboy, which did vex me to the heart because I know he will be telling their family of it, though I did put on presently a very pleasant face to the boy and spoke kindly to him as one without passion, so as it may be he might not think I was angry; but yet I was troubled at it.
Sir William Penn was a commissioner of the Navy Board and lived next door to Pepys; the families were friendly but, if this was so, the diarist did not really care for the admiral. Part of the problem was that they lived in close proximity, with their cellars imperfectly sealed from each other. On more than one occasion Pepys was driven from enjoying the night air on his roof by a “stinke by Sir W. Penn’s shying of a shitten pot in their house of office”. On another occasion Pepys was disgusted to find effluent and turds come through from Penn’s cellar to his own. But he had even greater reason for disliking his neighbour as it seems Penn did not wish Pepys to rise in the Navy Board. In this he failed utterly, as Pepys’s ability as an administrator ensured both his rise and that any attempts to catch him out on procedural matters would fail miserably. One of the diary’s very few angry entries reads: “Whatever the matter is, he doth much fawn on me, and I perceive would not fall out with me, and his daughter mighty officious to my wife; but I shall never be deceived again by him, but do hate him and his traitorous tricks with all my heart.”
The pretence of friendship continued until Penn’s death in 1670, with the families frequently socialising but Pepys very much of the view that the table offered in the Penn household was miserly. Penn would have been considerably wealthier than Pepys owing to his successful career in the navy. Cromwell rewarded him for his service with expropriated MacCarthy lands in Ireland, from which, as an absentee landlord, he extracted a considerable income. Indeed Penn lent monies to the king which were later repaid to his son in the form of the extensive land grants in America – which became Pennsylvania. The young Penn irritated his father by becoming a Quaker. Pepys commented: “Mr Will Penn, who is lately come over from Ireland, is a Quaker again or some very melancholy thing; that he cares for no company, nor comes into any – which is a pleasant thing, after his being abroad so long – and his father such a hypocritical rogue and at this time an atheist.”
On the night of Sept 2nd,1666 the Great Fire of London broke out. The most famous account of this disaster, which left 400 acres of the city in smouldering ruins, comes from Pepys. A baker in Pudding lane failed to extinguish his oven and his house caught fire and thereafter his neighbours’ houses and so on. Samuel and Elizabeth were planning a dinner party for the next day and the maids were up very late preparing the food. “Jane called us up, about 3 in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the city.” Pepys took a look and deciding there was nothing much to worry about went back to bed. The next morning the fire had grown; Jane told him some 300 houses were burning. Pepys set off to inspect the damage to his beloved city; one of his first thoughts being for the safety of one of his woman friends who lived on London Bridge. As he walked towards the fire the scale of the disaster emerged:
… Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods. And flinging into the river or bringing them in lighters that lay off. Poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stair by the waterside to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned their wings, and fell down.
Pepys, however, was more than just an observing flaneur; he wanted action taken to save the city:
I to Whitehall… and there up to the King’s closet in the chapel, where people came about me and I did give an account dismayed them all; and word was carried into the King, so I was called for and did tell the King and the Duke of York what I saw, and that unless his majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire.
The king commanded that houses should be destroyed to create a fire break but the lord mayor and the Duke of York’s soldiers were not adequate to the task and the fire raged on. It does not seem to have occurred to Pepys to cancel his dinner party, which went ahead; the guests, he said, were as merry as they could be under the circumstances. Later he left them with Elizabeth and went back into the city to inspect the damage. Later still he meet them again and the group walked together through the burning city. When they could bear the heat no longer they repaired to an alehouse on the banks of the river where they watched the fire grow
more and more, and in corners and upon steeples and between churches and houses, as far as I could see up the hill of the city, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the flame of an ordinary fire.
When he returned home his mind turned to practical considerations; this time it was his own wellbeing, rather than that of the city, which was uppermost in his mind. He moved “ … my money and iron chests into the cellar – as thinking that the safest place. And got my bags of gold into my office ready to carry away.” The next morning saw him in his garden digging a pit for his wine and Parmesan cheese, which he buried along with papers from his office. In the event the fire did not reach his house in Seething lane. So on September 14th he records “ … having this day also got my wine out of the ground again and set it in my cellar; but with great pains to keep the porters that carried it from observing the money chests there”. Within a few days the disruption to their lives was at an end:
Home to bed and find, to my infinite joy. Many rooms clean, and myself and my wife lie in our chamber again. But much terrified in the nights nowadays, with dreams of fire and falling down of houses.
Pepys rose from obscurity and in so doing became allied with the restored Stuarts in what was to become a dangerous and factional period. His kinsman Montagu served Cromwell and the commonwealth well but, as the 1650s advanced, a change in mood occurred. Many began to regret the beheading of the king; it was not clear who would lead after Cromwell. His son was unimpressive and parliament divided; the country was exposed to the danger of political incoherence and a consequent inability to act decisively. Powerful elements began to be attracted to the idea of restoring a single centre of political authority, to a restoration of the monarchy.
From the perspective of the twenty-first century the utility of hereditary monarchy may not be obvious; in fact it had crucial advantages over other systems, stability being the chief of them. Montagu, motivated by a wish for political calm, was one of the first to switch sides. He organised the return of the heir from Holland by ship. Pepys was on board with the royals and actually used his shorthand skills to record details of the young Charles’s escape after the civil war. The Duke of York, Charles’s brother, later James II – the Jacobite king – indicated to Pepys that he would favour him in the future.
Pepys was always loyal to the crown, accepting royalty as a rational political institution. He enjoyed regal pomp and ceremony, but at the same time was a moderniser with little attraction to medieval excesses; he wanted the monarchy to function efficiently in the interests of the complex polity that was late seventeenth century England. Charles, in some ways an old-style king, often disappointed Pepys in this respect. In January 1661, seven months after the king’s return from Holland, Pepys recorded: “The King settled and loved of all.” Charles’s grandiose impulses were, however, soon in evidence. In a revealing decision, he revived the ceremony of the king touching those with scrofula in order to heal them. Pepys was not overly impressed: “To Whitehall to the Banquet House and there saw the King heale, the first time that ever I saw him do it – which he did with great gravity; and it seemed to me to be an ugly office and a simple one.”
Charles’s coronation was, tellingly, a sumptuous affair which Pepys, of course, enjoyed. He rose at 4 am in order to climb scaffolding in Westminster Abbey to view the ceremony, some of which he missed as “I had so great a need to pisse”. The following morning the diarist was a little the worse for wear:
Waked in the morning with my head in a sad taking through the last night’s drink, which I am very sorry for. So rise and went out with Mr Creed to drink our morning draught, which he did give me in chocolate to settle my stomach.
Despite his approval of the crown as a political institution, he was regularly irritated by aspects of court life:
To the Tennice Court (after I had spent a little time in Westminster Hall, thinking to have met with Mrs Lane, but I could not and am glad of it) and there saw the King play at tennis and others. But to see how the King’s play was extolled without any cause at all, was a loathsome sight.
There was also something in the way Charles related to his mistresses, particularly Mrs Castlemaine – whom Pepys himself found more than a little attractive – which provoked his disapproval. He was not at all hostile to sexual adventure but, like a good bourgeois, wanted things properly compartmentalised. He became distressed when the love life of the royals, or of courtiers, interfered with business. When Lord Sandwich moved in with his beautiful and witty mistress, Pepys was most concerned and wrote his patron a diplomatic letter advising of the dangers. There may have been serious grounds for his concern in relation to Mrs Castlemaine and the king: they were said to have spent the evening the Dutch sailed up the Medway, threatening London, in pursuit of a moth. On the other hand envy may have played a role. Pepys was greatly moved by Mrs Castlemaine’s beauty and experienced something of an epiphany when he accidentally came across a collection of her undergarments drying in St James’s park.
Notwithstanding the excesses of royal amusement, Charles was generally an efficient monarch and based his rule on a successful alliance with the Anglican church. The Restoration did not, however, mean that the poison of fanaticism had been completely drained from English political life. On the contrary, bigotry remained a strong current, and ensured that Charles’s modest proposal to emancipate Catholics would be met with fierce opposition; opposition that would in time lead to the dethronement of his successor and brother, James II.
The desire to include Catholics was Charles’s only sin; in general he did not rock the Protestant boat. There was no reign of terror against those who had supported the beheading of his father; only a handful of the leading regicides were executed. Very few of the royalists who lost property following their defeat in the civil war had their lands restored. The hopes of the dispossessed in Gaelic and royalist Ireland were comprehensively dashed. Jonathan Swift felt the irony:
The Catholics of Ireland … lost their estates for fighting in defence of their King. Those who cut off the father’s head, forced the son to fly for his life … gained by their rebellion what the Catholics lost by their loyalty.
It was an irony which did not bother the Stuarts: Charles and his brother James were never prepared to put restitution, particularly restitution in Ireland, before their political interests in England. For the Irish, it was an early lesson in the unreliability of allies, a lesson, it has to be said, which was never fully mastered.
The growing strength of exclusivist Protestantism in parliament and its opposition to Charles meant that he had to attempt to rule without parliament if he was to avoid endorsing anti-Catholic discriminatory measures. Pepys disapproved of the attempt to exclude parliament, possibly not realising the full danger represented by Shaftesbury and his ilk. In June 1667 he expressed delight that the king had decided to call a Parliament:
it is done and pray God it may hold, though some of us must surely go to the pot.
This was a prophetic observation. The first of many challenges to Pepys came from an inquisitorial parliament which charged him and his colleagues with incompetence in their conduct of the Navy Board. His foes were formidable and presented their case in considerable detail. Pepys was obliged to work late, often with only three hours’ sleep, in order to assemble the means of refutation. On one night, having worked from midnight to six, he found the stress extreme and sent for Elizabeth to comfort him and she “… made me resolve to quit my hands of this office and endure the trouble of it no longer than till I can clear myself of it”.
However his work was not in vain. In an extraordinary performance over three hours Pepys, exhibiting great mastery of detail and clarity of thought, demolished every charge brought against him. (Prior to making his case, he had gone down to The Dog for a half pint of mulled sack and later took a dram of brandy at Mrs Howlett’s stall in Westminster Hall, which made him feel better “truly”. Judging from his performance these preparatory measures did no great harm.) Even his defeated enemies were impressed and the king, who would have been prepared to throw him to the dogs, was delighted. Pepys noted: “It is plain we have got great ground … and everybody says I have got the most honour that any could have had opportunity of getting.”
At this time Pepys did have other worries; in particular he feared he might be going blind and in an effort to ease the strain on his eyes ceased the diary. His fears were misplaced; he did not go blind and his eyes served him well for the remainder of his life. The Duke of York granted him leave and he went on a long holiday to France with Elizabeth, who was delighted to show him the scenes of her girlhood. However, shortly after they returned she contracted a fever and died, leaving Pepys in grief. He buried her, in one commentator’s words, “beneath a fine flamboyant tomb in St Olave’s church, Hart Street, then turned to his public duties”.
The next major assault came in 1678. Shaftesbury organised a sophisticated scheme, based on bribed perjurers, to accuse Pepys of being Catholic and of having murdered the respected magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey as part of a Catholic plot. Pepys however had a solid alibi; he was in Newmarket with the king at the time of the alleged murder. Switching tack, Shaftesbury tried to destroy Pepys through falsely charging his clerk, Samuel Atkins, with having committed the murder. The idea was to get Atkins to incriminate Pepys but Atkins held firm and Pepys applied himself to proving that Atkins could not have been guilty, becoming, in the process, an effective detective in his own cause, a talent which would ensure his own eventual survival.
Titus Oates and other paid or demented liars were at this time filling the ears of all and sundry with details of a popish plot to kill Charles in order to see the Catholic Duke of York on the throne. Some 35 people were falsely accused and executed and hundreds more imprisoned. Among the innocent who lost their lives were the Catholic archbishops of Dublin and Armagh, Peter Talbot and St Oliver Plunkett, who was hanged at Tyburn. Shaftesbury ensured that Pepys was included with the accused. This was a serious business and Pepys was locked up in the Tower of London awaiting the outcome of his trial, which was expected to end in his execution.
Shaftesbury’s main instrument against Pepys was the corrupt adventurer John Scott, and it very much appeared as if this individual would be the cause of Pepys losing his life. In an extraordinary exercise of focused willpower Pepys began to organise his defence from the Tower. It quickly became clear that the only hope was to discredit Scott, not an easy matter. Scores of letters were sent to Pepys’s old contacts in England, Holland and France and masses of inconclusive material gathered. Elizabeth’s brother, Balty, was sent as Pepys’s investigator to France to search out information about Scott. Balty received numerous and detailed instructions from Pepys as to what enquiries he was to make. Eventually, after months of work and the expending of great sums of money, Pepys was in a position to counter-attack. When the array of sworn witnesses against Scott available to Pepys became known, he simply fled the country. With this event and the withdrawal by his old butler of the lies he had been paid to tell, the prosecution case collapsed and by July 1680 Pepys was once more a free man.
He survived, and indeed thrived, during the remaining years of Charles’s reign. When the king died in 1685 and the less astute and openly Catholic Duke of York assumed the throne as James II, Pepys became a trusted lieutenant. During James’s short reign he controlled the Navy Board and made many constructive changes to the running of the fleet. However, given the scale of anti-Catholic bigotry, James’s open Catholicism ensured that sooner or later a putsch of some sort would occur. This is indeed what happened, the result being the Glorious Revolution and the installing of King William on the throne. Pepys declined to change his loyalties, remaining true to James and to a more tolerant idea of England. He refused to take an oath of loyalty to William and cheerfully endured three periods in prison, enjoying his intellectual pursuits and the company of his friends between such episodes. He described himself as a Jacobite, and having spent his life as an insider, became, in his final years, an outsider and indeed he has remained such. Following his final release from prison he lived out his remaining years in comfortable retirement, surrounded, in his Buckingham Street house, by his books and music, in the company of his affectionate and talented partner Mary Skinner and overlooking that permanent and much loved presence in his life, the Thames. Pepys died peacefully in 1703.
Reading the diaries in Dublin, one conclusion is pretty much unavoidable. Had Pepys’s vision of England prevailed there would have been no penal legislation against Catholics, the shared history of the two islands would have been considerably less malign and Stephen Daedalus would not have had among his cultural references the: “Glorious pious and immortal memory. The lodge of the Diamond in Armagh the splendid behung with the corpses of papishes.”
Maurice Earls is a bookseller and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books. This essay was first published in 2008.